How Hearing Works
Sounds are formed any time an object creates vibrations. These vibrations travel through the air, just as ripples travel across water. Hearing begins when the vibrations reach the outer ear, which functions as a funnel, collecting these sound vibrations and directing them toward the eardrum. As sound vibrations are picked up by the ear drum, they are transferred to a series of three tiny bones in the middle ear. These bones further amplify the vibrations of the eardrum, and transfer them to a sensory organ in the inner ear, called the cochlea. The inside of the cochlea is filled with fluid, and lined with tens of thousands of tiny hair cells. As vibrations pass through the fluid, it causes movement of these hair cells. This motion causes electrical signals to be sent along a specialized nerve, which are then processed into the sounds we hear.
Hearing Loss: Overview
Hearing loss is the total or partial inability to hear sound in one or both ears. Hearing loss falls into two major categories. The first category, called conductive hearing loss, occurs in the outer and middle ear, when the transmission of sound vibrations is prevented from reaching the inner ear. Examples of this are having too much wax in the ear, a hole in the eardrum, or fluid behind the eardrum. The second category, called sensory-neural hearing loss, occurs in the inner ear, when sound vibrations are unable to be converted into electrical signals that the brain can process. An example of this is hearing that is diminished or lost due to exposure to loud noise, genetics, medications, or the natural aging process. You and your doctor or hearing profressional may discuss the many possible options for improving hearing.
Hearing Loss: Signs of Hearing Loss
Some measureable form of hearing loss occurs as you age. Hearing loss is the third most common disease amongst adults, and it can have a variety of causes. Hearing loss can negatively impact one's quality of life, personal relationships, and, of course, the ability to communicate. People typically wait seven years between knowing they have a hearing problem, and doing something about it, and it is usually a loved one who notices first. There are tens of millions of people throughout the world with some type of hearing loss, and 90 to 95 percent of these cases can be treated successfully, with properly fitted hearing aids. If you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss, see a doctor or hearing professional for a complete evaluation.
Tinnitus is noise or ringing in the ears. Typically, the sound tinnitus sufferers hear, is not audible to others. It is usually a ringing, clicking, beating, or hissing sound. Although bothersome, in most cases tinnitus is not a sign of something serious. Unlike in past years, tinnitus can be treated in many cases. Talk to your doctor or hearing professional about your options.
The ability to maintain balance is an automatic body function that we take for granted until illness or injury occurs. We maintain our balance with the coordination of our eyes, our sense of touch, and our vestibular system, located in the inner ear.
The vestibular system is comprised of two organs, known as otolithic organs and three semicircular canals next to the ears. The canals are fluid-filled chambers that are lined with hair cells containing nerve sensors. When we move, the movement of fluid in the canals stimulates these hair cells. A signal is then transmitted to the brain where it is interpreted as movement. The brain also receives information from the eyes and the sense of touch. All three parts of the balance system must communicate the same information to the brain in order to maintain good balance. If one of these systems reports conflicting information to the brain, the result may be dizziness.
Otosclerosis is a disease of the bones of the middle ear and inner ear, which usually involves the third hearing bone, called the stapes. The stapes is responsible for transmitting sound to the inner ear, through tiny vibrations. In otosclerosis, a gradual buildup of excess bone tissue develops in the walls of the inner ear, causing the stapes bone to become frozen in place. As the stapes fuses to the surrounding bone, it prevents sound waves from reaching the inner ear, which leads to hearing loss. Hearing loss can progress quickly in some people, but in others, it may stay the same for a number of years, before getting progressively worse. Otosclerosis usually starts in one ear, and then over time, may develop in the other ear as well. The cause of otosclerosis is not fully understood, although research has shown that people who have a family history of this condition, are more likely to develop the disorder. If you or someone you know is experiencing hearing loss, you should speak with your doctor, or a hearing specialist immediately.
External Otitis: Overview
Otitis Externa or "Swimmer's Ear," is an infection of the skin covering the outer ear, and ear canal. When your ear is exposed to excess moisture, water can remain trapped in your ear canal, leading to infection. Self-care steps can relieve the symptoms of swimmer's ear. When otitis externa is more severe, treatment may consist of topical drops and oral medications.
Perforated (Ruptured) Eardrum: Overview
A ruptured eardrum is a tear or a hole in the eardrum, the thin membrane which separates the ear canal, from the middle ear. A ruptured eardrum impairs the transmission of sound, and may affect your hearing. A ruptured eardrum can also allow outside materials to more easily reach your middle ear, which can cause infection, pain, and ear drainage. Ruptured eardrums may heal within a few weeks without treatment.
Ear Wax: Overview
The skin on the outer part of the ear canal, has special glands that produce ear wax, also known as cerumen. Ear wax is helpful in normal amounts, and serves to protect the ear from damage and infection. At times, however, too much earwax may accumulate, and it may become too difficult to wash away naturally. This can lead to earwax, or cerumen impaction, which is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. There is no way to know if you have excessive earwax without having a doctor look into your ears.
Ear Infection (Otitis Media): Overview
Otitis media is an inflammation of the middle ear, or middle ear infection. Middle ear infections develop in the area between the ear drum and the inner ear. When the ears are infected, the eustachian tubes, which are small tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of the nose, become inflamed and swollen. If the eustachian tubes become swollen, fluids form in the middle ear, which cannot flow out to the nose and throat. If left untreated, this can lead to further infection, hearing loss or scarring.
Hearing Aids: Treatment Overview
A hearing aid is a small electronic device that you wear in or behind your ear. Hearing aids work by collecting sounds from the environment through microphones, processing the sounds to help separate what you want to hear, from the background noise, and then directing this processed signal into your ear, using a speaker. Hearing aids come in three basic styles, those that fit behind the ear, those that fit inside the outer ear, and those that fit within the ear canal. The hearing aid that will work best for you depends on the type, and severity of your hearing loss. You and your doctor or hearing professional should select a hearing aid that best suits your needs and lifestyle.
Other Considerations for Hearing Aids
Some people are concerned that hearing aids will make them look older, or change how they are perceived. People try to compensate for hearing loss by guessing at what is being said, or by using visual cues to make up for their loss of hearing. Wearing a hearing aid is much less noticeable than routinely asking people to repeat themselves. The truth is that a properly fit hearing aid can greatly enhance your ability to interact with others. By wearing a hearing aid daily, and maintaining it, you'll likely notice significant improvements in your quality of life. The first step is to talk to your doctor, or hearing professional, about your hearing.
Choosing the Right Hearing Aid
Digital hearing aids amplify sounds by utilizing a computer chip, to convert incoming sounds, into digital information, then analyzing and adjusting the sound, based on an individuals hearing loss, and listening needs. Digital hearing aids are available with various levels of technology, each designed to fit your lifestyle and listening needs. Your doctor or hearing professional will help you choose the hearing aid that's right for you.
Two Are Better Than One
In most cases, it's better to have two hearing aids rather than one. Wearing two hearing aids allows more information to reach your brain, and makes it easier to hear speech against background noise. With two hearing aids, you will enjoy more balanced hearing, and you will be more able to tell where a sound is coming from. In much the same way you would wear two corrective eyeglass lenses to treat a vision problem, it makes sense to fully address hearing loss in both ears, with two hearing aids. Talk to your doctor or hearing professional about your options.